SAME FIXTURE, SAME opposition. It’s Deja Vu this weekend as Ulster welcome Saracens to Belfast in a replay of last season’s Heineken Cup quarter final.
On the surface it’s ‘as you were’ for both teams, who share a number of common characteristics both on and off the field. It’s due to these similarities, that although its top versus bottom seed, it proves to be the tightest of all four knock-out matches to call.
Sharing a game-plan built on uncompromising defence, an intelligent and astute kicking game, and international stars dotted round the park, it is extremely difficult to pinpoint where this game will be won and lost, and where there is, if any, an area of weakness that either team can exploit to their advantage.
There is a South African influence fueling both sides, with Ulster’s Johann Muller captaining the side in this his final year of professional rugby, and scrum-half Ruan Pienaar already proving his match-winning ability in the pool stages of this year’s tournament. Schalk Brits, Ernst Joubert and Jacques Burger headline the foreign legion for Saracens, and fuel a formidable forward pack that consistently out-muscles it’s opposition week-in, week-out, in the Aviva Premiership.
There’s a familiarity too, in pivotal positional head-to-head battles across the ground that reinforce the difficulty of who enters this match as favourites. Andy Goode and Jared Payne are both excellent broken field runners, have the ability to step into first receiver and distribute, and possess a clever kicking game that will be vital in gaining territory for their side.
Johann Muller and Steve Borthwick are both extremely experienced campaigners, are the main decision makers on the field in general play and set-piece, and are the calming influence in an atmosphere and occasion that may get the better of their teammates.
At out-half, Saracens have a player, in Owen Farrell, at the top of his game, growing in confidence with each game in the England shirt. A strong defender and accurate goal kicker, Farrell is at the heart of everything Saracens do well. If Ulster can limit his influence from the outset, it will force them to look to Plan B.
Opposite him and perhaps a year or two off the rapid rise of Farrell, but by no means less talented and influential to his side, is Ulster’s Paddy Jackson. Since being included in Ireland’s successful Six Nations squad and featuring, albeit briefly, in a number of Test matches in the green jersey, his domestic form in the RaboDirect Pro12 has been hugely impressive.
Having the experienced and other goal-kicking option of Pienaar inside him, and Darren Cave outside, has taken the pressure off somewhat and enabled him to play his natural game. He has admitted himself that he has learnt so much spending time training with Ireland during the Six Nations, feeding off guys like Johnny Sexton. Owen Farrell said the same thing after returning home from the Lions successful tour of Australia.
It is with this knowledge, and the past experience of playing in the 2012 Heineken Cup final against Leinster, as well as last year’s quarter final, that reduces the gap in a match-up that, on paper, seems to heavily favour Farrell.
This experience over the last couple of years filters through this Ulster side as they have learnt from past defeats, now finding themselves as one of the favourites to go all the way. In last years’ corresponding game, there was only one team in it. Saracens suffocated Ulster defensively from the outset, limited the impact of Muller at the line-out and kept Pienaar’s influence relatively quiet.
A year on, Ulster have shown that if this occurs again, they have more than enough to match the physicality and confrontational style of defence of the Saracens. This was no more evident than in the final pool game against Leicester at Welford Road, where they emerged victors not just in the result, but the physical battle. They were superior at the breakdown and more importantly, did it for 80 minutes.
Chris Henry and Andrew Trimble are two players that are key to upholding this physicality around the park, and are coming off impressive Six Nations campaigns, where they featured in all five of Ireland’s test matches. Henry has benefited from the injury to Sean O’Brien to stake his claim for the No.7 shirt and has not let anyone down. Trimble has taken his domestic form onto the international stage, playing with freedom under head coach Joe Schmidt. Both in form, both home grown Ulsterman, they will thrive in the familiar surroundings of Ravenhill to make sure that the team in white is the one setting the tone this time around.
Finally, in a game so tight to call, the crowd could be the deciding factor to get the home team over the line. The people of Belfast have waited long and hard for a knock-out European fixture to be played at Ravenhill, and now they have their wish, in a new stadium.
No one wants to look too far ahead but a home semi final is in line for the winner of Saturday’s game. Then, who knows what can happen. Same team. Same Fixture. Different result? Let’s hope so.
@adamdarcy played 54 times for Ulster from 2010 to 2013. He is currently with English Championship side Bristol.